Background: It has been known for many years that small intestinal maltase activities are reduced in malnourished infants and in other patients with villous atrophy. The recent availability of human maltase-glucoamylase cDNA provides the opportunity to test the hypothesis that villous atrophy accounts for the reduced maltase enzyme activity in malnourished infants.
Methods: Mucosal biopsy specimens obtained for clinical evaluation of malnourished infants with poor responses to refeeding were examined by quantitative methods for enzyme activity and mRNA levels.
Results: Maltase activity and maltase-glucoamylase mRNA were reduced (approximately 45% of normal). When maltase-glucoamylase message was normalized to villin message, a structural protein expressed only in enterocytes, a preservation of maltase messages in surviving enterocytes was documented. The luminal glucose transporter-villin message was also preserved.
Conclusions: The loss of maltase-glucoamylase message paralleled the reduction in villin message and degree of villous atrophy. The reduced maltase-glucoamylase message also paralleled sucrase-isomaltase message, previously found to be decreased in proportion to villous atrophy of malnourished infants. The data directly demonstrate, for the first time, that the terminal steps of starch 1-4 starch digestion and sucrase-isomaltase 1-6 starch digestion are decreased in malnourished infants, secondary to villous atrophy. These data in prior and present reports suggest that mechanisms underlying the chronic villous atrophy of malnutrition should be a priority for investigations in malnourished infants with slower than expected weight gain during refeeding.